By Ila Ananya
In the last few days, we have seen three things appear over and over again in the news. On 9 November, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision, followed by his emotional speech about his many ‘sacrifices’ for this nation. We’ve heard him claim that his demonetisation decision is ‘kadak chai’ for the rich, and now he’s even called his move a “mahayajna of honesty”. Second, we have RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, stating at a women’s conference in Jammu on 14 November, that Indian women must come forward and contribute to the nation-building exercise that he obviously considers himself a great part of. Then there is 95-year-old Heeraben Modi, the prime minister’s mother, who went to Gandhinagar on Tuesday to exchange her demonetised notes in a bank. They are all connected, because apparently it’s once more time for: Every woman must become Mother India.
Twitter has predictably exploded into two opposing factions since the news of the elder Mrs Modi’s visit to the bank broke. On the one hand, Modi is being called cruel for using his mother to play a sentimental card. Many Twitter users are saying that this “Mere paas ma hai” or “Ma ke paas passbook hai” move is being done since all else has failed, and reports of how badly demonetisation has affected the working class have finally begun to appear. Others have decided that Heeraben going to a bank to get her money exchanged is her contribution, along with her son’s, to what is considered by the upper middle class as a rigorous, thorough exercise in nation-building, and in what it calls its attempt to reduce black money and terrorism.
Mohan Bhagwat’s speech on Monday in Jammu talks about the new heights that we can take India to with the participation of women. According to him, “Matra Shakti”, the strength of motherhood or, as various reports have optimistically translated it, ‘women force’ should, apart from serving families, “Come forward and take part in the programmes for the welfare of the society.” Then he went on to say, “They should start from their homes to create mini-India and work for the society without getting distracted by anybody.”
Only Bhagwat knows what he is referring to when he talks about women being “distracted” (he’s previously said that Hindu-women should produce more children, that rapes happen only in urban India because of western influence and not Bharat, and that a marriage is like a “contract” where the husband can leave his wife if she doesn’t look after his house so really only he knows what we are distracted by) – but implicit in all his other wisdom is the idea that women cannot come out to work for themselves. You must always, always, contribute to nation-building, never mind if this nation that Bhagwat talks of isn’t the nation that you want, or it isn’t a nation that gives you something in return.
Bhagwat’s statements are not surprising in the least. They, like Modi’s statements on his sacrifices for Bharat Mata, and what people are calling Heeraben’s sacrifice for India, are just more examples of how we have begun to see India as a nation – as larger than those who make up the nation. This is particularly true of women. In Modi’s announcement of demonetisation – and those who are 'Loving It' – there is no regard for women and men who have no access to bank accounts and ID cards, and who are daily wage earners, or housewives. In Bhagwat’s statements, there is no recognition that women are more than this nation that he wants us to build. And then, along with all of this, Bhagwat is also blissfully ignorant of all the work that women have already been doing in this country as farmers, construction workers, homemakers, anganwadi workers, garment factory workers and municipal workers.
There is nothing new in Bhagwat’s reference to women who must build the nation as also having the responsibility of “serving” their families. So when he says, “It is important to educate womenfolk because a mother is the basic teacher to her children,” we just roll our eyes, since this is simply a reiteration of what we have heard for years. But then Bhagwat goes on to say, “Women have taught and inculcated a sense of sacrifice among the children and the society in the country.” For years women have been expected to make sacrifices for the people around them — for their families, their husbands, about their bodies, their work. Now, with these sacrifices (that were also for nation-building) and along with the work that women must apparently do for the country, we have come back full circle to 'every woman must become tuition teacher India'.
This is the connection between Heeraben Modi and the manner in which her going to a bank is being talked about in terms of virtuous nation-building, and the way in which Bhagwat talks about “Matra Shakti” and how women must work for the nation and not for themselves (after all who knows what will happen to this country if they do). It is as though the only way that he can see women is as mothers, as India’s daughters, as everyone other than their own person – in the same way that Heeraben is being talked about in terms of her support for the greater good, and for Mother India.
To rephrase another man who loved to talk about sacrifice: Ask not what your mommy can do for you, ask what you can do for Mommy. Let’s talk again when Paytm means Pay To Ma.
(The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.)